In a recent decision, the Appellate Division of Superior Court took the unusual step of overturning a tenure arbitration decision that reinstated a classroom teacher of thirty years to his tenured position.
In Somerset County Vocational-Technical School v. Vingara, John Vingara had been employed by the vocational school as a culinary arts teacher for more than 30 years. Administrators became suspicious of Vingara when the business administrator’s office received an invoice from a vendor for items not needed during the summer months. When food items turned up missing on a day that Vingara made an unscheduled appearance in the building, an investigation began.
Based on that investigation, district administrators filed tenure charges alleging (a) conduct unbecoming a teacher; (b) neglect of duty; and (c) theft of goods and services. Despite viewing videotape evidence and hearing direct testimony from a security guard, the arbitrator found the district failed to prove theft of goods and services and accordingly, dismissed all charges.
The vocational school appealed the arbitrator’s decision to the Chancery Division, which took the unusual step of reversing the arbitration decision. According to N.J.S.A. 2A:24-8, an arbitration award may only be vacated upon proof: (1) the award was procured by corruption, fraud, or other undue means; (2) the arbitrator engaged in misconduct that prejudiced the rights of a party; (3) an arbitrator refused to perform his or her duties so as to substantially prejudice the rights of a party to the arbitration proceeding; or (4) the arbitrator exceeded the arbitrator’s powers.
It should be noted that the standard to overturn an arbitration award is an extremely high standard and one that is difficult to establish. This high standard may have contributed to Vingara’s decision to appeal the trial court’s reversal to the appellate division.
In the present matter, the court found, and the Appellate Division affirmed, that the arbitrator neglected his duties when, after dismissing the allegations of theft, he failed to consider the district’s alternative charges of conduct unbecoming and neglect of duty.
Specifically, the Appellate Division noted that the arbitrator failed to consider Vingara’s presence on campus during off hours, despite previous warnings, and leaving before the end of the day as examples of conduct that could arise to neglect of duty.
In addition, the arbitrator did not consider whether conducting personal business while on campus, receiving unauthorized deliveries for personal business, or lying about professional development days constituted neglect of duty or conduct unbecoming a teacher. Therefore, the Appellate Division agreed with the trial court that the arbitrator imperfectly executed his power by failing to evaluate all claims and supporting evidence of neglect of duty and conduct unbecoming a teaching professional.
The Appellate Division also found that the arbitrator erred when he determined that the district failed to prove its case “beyond any possible explanation,” where the evidentiary standard merely requires proof by a preponderance of the evidence. The Appellate Division concluded by affirming the trial court’s determination that the arbitration award was procured by undue means and remanded the matter to a different arbitrator to consider all three tenure charges anew.
For additional information on this matter or other tenure proceedings, please contact the New Jersey School Board Association’s Legal and Labor Relations Services Department at (609) 278-5245.